The Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum, and the Presidential Palace, Sunday, October 1st, 2007
Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007
The Cu Chi Tunnels are about 70k from Saigon, and stretch for about 250k from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to form an underground guerilla escape network that flummoxed the Americans entirely during the war. With camouflaged entrances just big enough to admit a small Vietnamese frame, these tunnels were on three levels, complete with kitchens, hospitals and escape routes. According to our guide, Long, and the prevailing propaganda, these tunnels were built in response to carpet bombing by B52s and the use of napalm/Agent Orange by local peasant villagers with no engineering background. Who knows? It seems an astonishing engineering feat for uneducated people…
The booby traps we were shown on this tour were certainly primitive in conception if not in design. Made with great skill out of recycled bombs, scrap metal and rubber these gruesome things were deliberately designed to capture but not to kill, so that victims could be interrogated, but they were also intended to inflict terrible injuries. We saw an adaptation of a tiger trap with bamboo stakes to impale anyone who stumbled into it, and a door trap deliberately designed to emasculate and disembowel the victim. It is quite confronting to see these things displayed alongside massive American B52 bomb craters, especially since the Vietnamese seem to present them with pride in their own ingenuity. I thought they were revolting, providing further evidence that war brutalises all sides so that the participants become indifferent to atrocities they would otherwise abhor.
These days some of the tunnels have been widened for Western waistlines so that tourists can venture down for a look, and there is also a shooting range where they can play about with AK47s so that the tourist experience is enhanced by the ear-splitting sound of machine gun fire – but such activities seem grotesque to me. The unspoken truth about Cu Chi is that it is an unmarked graveyard, and it seems to me that it should be treated with the same respect that Australians demand for Gallipoli. I don’t blame the Vietnamese for turning it into a tourist attraction: they are poor, the tourist dollar is vital for their economy and few people would visit if it were otherwise – but it was a place that made me feel very uncomfortable.
I was glad to go back to Saigon, and glad to be out of the jungle where they say there is still unexploded ordnance once off the beaten track. After lunch, however, there were more horrors to come. We visited the War Remnants Museum, also very confronting, especially to the former GIs who were wandering about the displays in silence that was utterly unlike the usual noisy behaviour of Americans Abroad. Outside in the sunshine there were captured American planes and the detritus of armaments, and it seemed rather banal, but inside there were graphic photos of gruesome deaths, wholesale destruction of homes, and atrocities such as the massacres at My Son and My Lai. Equally ghastly was the collection of malformed foetuses preserved in formaldehyde and the photos of deformed children who had been affected by Agent Orange. The most revolting of all was a photo of a GI tossing around the shredded remnants of a Vietnamese man, still recognisable as a human being despite his horrific injuries. I could not bear to look at much of it, and felt ashamed that my country had followed the Americans so blindly into this stupid, pointless and cruel war.
From there, to more pleasant things – a tour of the Presidential Palace. We posed in front of the gates that the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through so spectacularly in 1975, passed by the gardens where American helicopters had scooped up those fleeing the victors and checked out the interior. It was less opulent than I had expected, indeed quite Spartan in a 60s minimalist kind of way, (which ought to be a lesson to anyone else trying to build something splendid in an era of architectural barbarism).
From there we had a quick look through Notre Dame Cathedral, which is somewhat faded but still has very impressive stained glass windows – and also the Post Office, built by the French with materials brought entirely from France. These French colonial buildings inspired us to seek out a good French restaurant called Camarque where we had a truly splendid meal to restore our spirits after a rather sombre day!